Even in Silicon Valley it wasn’t long ago when sex discrimination from some of tech’s most influential people was still a reality. Two years ago Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced to step down after word broke that he’d donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California until 2013 when it was declared unconstitutional.
But the tech world has changed since then – well, slightly. Particularly in the case of San Francisco’s Lesbians Who Tech, a “community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them),” success and attention has come slowly and surely. Now with a new chapter having opened in Montreal, the group is continuing a strong growth trend.
Founded in 2012, the worldwide group has chapters in Berlin, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Paris, Mexico City, Melbourne, London and more. It counts over 20,000 people as members. Buzzfeed’s Ellen Cushing even wrote that “if every tech conference were like lesbians who tech, tech would be a much better place.”
It’s first summit in San Francisco came in early 2014 with over 800 queer women in tech attending (including 30 per cent women of colour). “People were blown away – most people had never been among that many lesbians at a professional event,” Lesbians Who Tech’s founder Leanne Pittsford, an entrepreneur, technology strategist, UX designer and tech investor, told Forbes at the time.
The group was founded so that lesbians working in tech could be more visible to each other, be more visible to others in the workforce, to get more women and lesbians in technology and to connect its group to other women’s groups. Even the White House wanted in on it too, asking the group to help organize its first LGBT Tech and Innovation Summit.
That such groups defending/promoting different sexual orientations in the workplace are popping up all the time (including Montreal’s Queer Tech MTL) shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it may be new for some to learn why the founders of these groups fought so hard to create such movements.
Lesbians who work in tech are a minority’s minority. As Pittsford explained to Forbes, “LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning) women in tech were under-represented in all of the communities in which they were a part – women, tech and LGBTQ.”
Fortune’s Shalene Gupta wrote that gay women face all the challenges of being a women in tech with the additional challenges of being lesbian in tech. As recently as 2015 women in tech were earning 13 per cent less then men, according to Hired.com, a recruiting start-up. Meanwhile, the financial impact is “doubled for lesbian couples.”
But Gupta argued the biggest challenges remain personal: finding people who understand.
Rebecca Woodmass, the co-director of Lesbians Who Tech’s Montreal chapter, said it’s difficult for queer women to come out in the work place.
“The coming out process is not so much one of self-assertion but just a way to be able to exist and not have to watch what you say,” said the 30-year-old entrepreneur. She owns her own a web development, design strategy business, which often does pro-bono or low cost work for queer and trans people. Woodmass, a classically-trained singer as well, also has a blog and a podcast.
“There are many people I know who work within tech and and startups that feel that they can’t come out. In the workplace things can come out and it can be uncomfortable. ‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘I hung out with my girlfriend.’ ‘What, you’re gay?'”
Frat boy behaviour and casual sexism exists in the workplace, said Dominique DeGuzman, a software engineer for cloud communications company Twilio. “It’s much easier for a group of men to associate you as one of the guys rather than a queer woman,” DeGuzman told Fortune. “They’ll do things they wouldn’t do around other females.”
A solution for everyone, say the women and their allies at Lesbians Who Tech, can be getting involved with Lesbians Who Tech and the events they run.
The organization’s next three events will happen in New York, Baltimore and Boston, mostly dev bootcamps or happy hours. It’s uniquely bilingual chapter in Montreal held its first ever happy hour event last week where 40 people attended. Woodmass said the chapter will run one happy hour per month. “Everyone is welcome.”
The co-director also told MTLinTECH that her chapter will seek to run hackathons, panel discussions and conferences in the future as well.
And while there’s plenty to improve in tech’s male and straight-dominated tech world, improvement isn’t a foreign concept.
Lotus, now owned by IBM, was one of the first companies to provide health benefits for partners, according to Politico. More recently, Google, Apple, Dell have all made it onto the Human Rights Campaign’s best places to work list.
Several funds have been launched to support LGBT-identified entrepreneurs, like VentureOut, which funds seed-stage startups founded by business leaders in the LGBT community. LGBT Capital, meanwhile, takes a different angle, supporting companies that target the LGBT consumer market.